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SPOTLIGHT
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The leadership scam

Published on -8/29/2014, 10:00 AM

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Twenty years ago, a few colleges and universities had some minor "leadership" programs. Usually based in business schools, students were experienced business folks. Today, public universities across the country are touting "leadership" programs, both majors and minors, to all of their student body.

This is more about recruiting students than actual production of leaders. It misleads some students into thinking there is a fast track to the top. And it defies all logic, striving to produce "all chiefs and no Indians." (I will be criticized about being politically incorrect, but there is no better phrase to capture this insanity.)

The courses in these programs, now often starting the freshman year, are generic with no substantial enduring academic content. Textbooks are modeled after the 12-ideas-of-highly-rich-people genre. The curriculum is mostly an expansion of I'm-OK-you're-OK feelgoodism.

But the qualities for various vocations are unique. Where is the evidence an educational leader has the same skills as a factory manager or a colonel in the military? Where is the evidence you can train in honesty or commonsense or other personality traits? And those facets are trainable are part of the regular communication and writing and math curricula. But not generic one-size-fits-all "leadership?"

Aside from wasting many students' money on tuition for a questionable curricula, there are serious down sides to instant-leader programs. And they have harmed higher education and K-12 schooling.

A few long-standing programs actually accept undergraduate students into leadership career paths. You can plan to take coursework to become an educational leader. Nationwide, the Aug. 22 Chronicle of Higher Education reports an increase in higher administrators who did not come up through the ranks as professors themselves.

Administrators who lack any experience as a classroom teacher and researcher promulgate rules and regulations that are at best naive. At worst, they undermine the teaching and research. Having never served as a faculty member on curriculum or promotion committees, they impose procedures that do not work and which undermine faculty morale. And one of their first actions is to develop or expand the leadership curriculum.

At the K-12 level, the result has been disastrous in those states that have sidestepped the requirement to come-up-the-ranks. Since career military can retire after 20 years of service while in their mid-40s, many states have recruited these captains and majors and colonels to become school administrators. This reflects an anti-teacher attitude that somehow military commanders can "shape up our schools."

Most states still require school administrators to have been teachers and to have experienced students in the classroom before moving into leadership positions. As a former high school teacher, I needed a school administrator who treats teachers as the professionals and provides us with the support we need. Unfortunately, that perspective is being lost as the corporate reformers and "leadership" crowd treat school teachers as assembly line workers.

If pure leadership was a skill separate from the job being done, then we can turn the military-education example around. Why not hire a 20-year veteran teacher to be general? No need to go through boot camp. No need to serve time ascending the ranks or experience what soldiers experience before you are in charge of them.

Most people with common sense -- and no leadership training -- realize there are many good reasons generals should come up from the ranks. Otherwise, there would be a lot of lives lost; indeed, in times of war, we have made that mistake.

The real way to train leaders is to train the best folks at the entry level and let time and experience sort those who have the additional skills to lead. In these cases, there might indeed be a few courses that might help those exceptional people.

But the massive recruitment of students across this country into leadership programs is little more than an appeal to ego in order to attract tuition dollars.

Any small child can tell you: When everyone's special, no one is special.

John Richard Schrock is a professor

in the Department of Biological Sciences

at Emporia State University.

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